Improve Accountable Talk in Your Class: Fostering Collaboration and Learning

2 students at their desk talking about their high level discussion main

Best teaching practices are an ever-changing topic and are often hotly debated. One focus in the classroom that has become accepted (by most) for highly effective teaching is the move away from teacher-directed lessons. Chalk and talk as a daily diet is as dead as actual chalk. Does anybody actually have blackboards anymore?! A key component of student-led lessons is student discussion.

In order to facilitate high-level student discussion – also known as accountable talk – a lot of scaffolding is necessary. Following is a step-by-step procedure my school’s social studies department has rolled out successfully.

What is Accountable Talk?

If you had asked me that question a couple of years ago I would have replied the same way a judge once famously explained pornography:

“I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” – Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart

After several readings and discussions on the topic I can be a lot more specific. Here goes:

Accountable talk is a teaching strategy that encourages students to engage in respectful and meaningful discussions with their peers. It involves using specific language and communication skills that promote critical thinking, active listening, and collaboration. The goal of accountable talk is for students to learn how to express their ideas clearly, support their arguments with evidence, and consider multiple perspectives when engaging in academic discourse. 

This approach helps students develop strong communication skills, which are essential for success both inside and outside the classroom. It also improves their writing ability, as many write the way they speak.

Accountable talk is a primary focus in my school and observations rely heavily on it being evident.

Steps to Teach Accountable Talk in High School: Small Group Discussion

Let’s jump into how to make these high-level discussions happen in your classroom. Let’s begin with small group (2-3) discussion first, then we’ll do whole class. I’ll roll out all of the protocols at one time. However, your students may need to do one step at a time and build up to the entire protocol.

To implement this technique, you’ll need the following:

– a short reading passage (3-5 paragraphs works well)

– The protocol handout (you can download it below)

Introduce what accountable talk means

Before students start their accountable talk practice, first establish the components of high-level communication. These can be listed on a slide. The key components are:

  • respectful discourse
  • one mic
  • speaking in full sentences
  • using evidence to support your answers
  • Active listening with your partner
  • Writing down the main points of your partner’s response

Next, unless you already have them posted in your classroom, display a slide with some question stems. You can download a sample here (you’ll be prompted to make your own copy).

Now give it a try in a whole class discussion. Choose a topic that students are interested in, not related to the content you’re teaching. This allows them to simply focus on communication skills without the pressure of having content knowledge. You can try music, sports, ChatGPT, or video games. Call on a student to use one of the question stems to create a high-order thinking (we call HOT) question.

Let the discussion proceed for a few minutes and give feedback on each comment that’s shared.

Now you’re ready to set the students to the task!

Step 1: Students Read and Annotate

Allow 3-5 minutes for students to read the document you’ve provided. Ask them to annotate to “make their thinking visible”. This includes highlighting specific, guided evidence (causes, effects, achievements, etc.) AND jotting notes in the margins. 

Step 2: Check for Understanding

As a whole class pose 1 or 2 straight-forward questions about the passage to ensure the kids understood what they read. Clarify any misunderstandings if needed.

Step 3: Individual Answers and Creating a HOT Question

On their own, students answer a guided question that you’ve posed on their protocol. This question should have several possible answers. An opinion question works well. Their answer should include evidence from the document to support their answer.

Next, the student creates their own high-level thinking question using the sentence starters if needed. 

Step 4: Let the Conversation Begin!

Now it’s time for accountable talk to begin. Student A reads their answer while Student B listens and writes down the main points of the answer. Afterward, they switch roles.

Then Student A shares her HOT question. They discuss various possible answers. When they’re done Student B’s HOT question becomes the topic of conversation.

Step 5: Self-Reflection

Finally, everyone takes a minute or 2 to reflect on their work and assign a level of mastery using 5 components as a mini-rubric.


In most lessons, I end the class with a conclusion question that encourages students to reflect on what they learned.

Voila, you’ve implemented a lesson that included content knowledge, high-order thinking and rich discussion!

Possible Challenges When Implementing This Protocol

This protocol embeds lots of support for struggling students. It’s laid out step-by-step. They’re given sentence starters and a document to cull information from.

However, there’s usually the occasional student who does not create their HOT question. this could be for any number of reasons. But if a student doesn’t do their part the back-and-forth discussion cannot take place.

As students are formulating their HOT questions walk around an identify 1 or 2 good ones. Write those on the board or on your slide. When it’s almost time for discussion to begin inform the kids who haven’t created their HOT questions to “adopt” one on the board. This allows the lesson to move forward.

Whole Class Discussion

As students practice and improve their discussion abilities in small groups they can bring those skills to a whole class discussion.

We use a few procedures to help facilitate a smooth discourse. Respect rules and one voice at a time apply, of course.

After the first student provides their opinion/answer the rest of the class shows a response with their thumbs. 

Thumbs up = “I agree”

Thumbs down = “I disagree”

Thumbs to the side = “I’d like to add on”

That first student then calls on someone with thumbs down or thumbs to the side. The discussion continues popcorn style in the same manner.

When your kiddos are showing competence in their conversations you can have a student facilitate the discussion. They would call on students as well as reignite a fading exchange by asking a question that expands upon the original one or respond to a previous answer by asking a follow-up question.

Final Thoughts

These techniques are very scripted, but don’t let that turn you off. They work!

As I mentioned earlier you may want to roll out 1 step at a time of the protocol. Start out with students sharing their answers to a teacher-generated question and writing down their partner’s response. Then graduate to students making their own questions. 

Building your students’ communication muscle is powerful. It empowers them to share their thoughts. It makes your lessons more vibrant. Once they’ve really nailed it, you can ALMOST put your feet on the desk and eat bonbons!

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.